BREGA, Libya — A senior Libyan rebel leader sharply criticized NATO on Monday for bureaucratic delays that he said were putting civilians' lives at risk and complicating rebel efforts to fight the Gadhafi forces on the ground.
The official, Ali al-Essawi, the foreign policy director of the National Transitional Council, made his remarks as the rebels' disorganized and quixotic fight again stalled under fire in the eastern oil town of Brega, where loyalist forces have fought off repeated rebel attacks, and as more people were reported to have been killed in the siege at the beleaguered city of Misrata.
In Brega, after forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi ceded their presence in a residential quarter of the town, a rebel attack in the evening against loyalists at a university campus and oil infrastructure was met by ferocious heavy machine gun fire and an artillery or mortar barrage.
The loyalists' firepower, coordinated and accurate, killed at least several rebel fighters and wounded many more, and sent others scrambling north in retreat.
Throughout the day, no air power was visible overhead. A Pentagon spokesman, Capt. Darryn James, said that American air power had played a smaller role in the war since Sunday, and with command-and-control of the air campaign officially shifted to NATO, by midnight Monday in Washington the United States had no strike sorties planned.
American aircraft, James said, would now be on a so-called "standby mode" and would fly only when requested by NATO and approved by the Pentagon. The withdrawal of American assets means, among other things, that the rebels will have less support from two classes of aircraft that made several successful attacks against the Gadhafi forces in eastern Libya — the AC-130 gunship and A-10 — than when the loyalist forces were turned back just short of Benghazi, the rebel capital, two weeks ago.
The quiet in the eastern skies Monday seemed to underscore Essawi's sentiment that the international military campaign, after initially turning back Gadhafi's army and militias as they swept eastern Libya, had lost momentum, leaving adrift the ground war, waged by rebels with virtually no military experience or structure.
"There's a delay in reacting and lack of response to what's going on on the ground, and many civilians have died, and they couldn't react to protect them," Essawi said in Rome.
Essawi said the problems began after NATO took charge of the air campaign from the U.S., Britain and France, and that he now foresaw a drawn-out battle. "They took the command, they will make it long," he said at the Community of Sant'Egidio, a liberal Catholic group active in diplomacy.
A sustained campaign could be especially hard on civilians in Misrata, a city in the west in which rebels have been battling the Gadhafi forces in a long siege. A resident of the city, Mohamed, said by telephone that five people had been killed and 24 wounded in continued shelling Monday. His last name was withheld for his protection.
Any long-lasting campaign raises questions as well about the prospects for rebel success in the east, where a small, ill-trained rebel column had been stalled for days along the two-lane highway to Brega.
Early Monday, the forces loyal to Gadhafi, who had been patrolling one of the town's residential areas, known as New Brega, slipped away, allowing rebel forces to advance. The rebels who were strung north along the highway urged anyone with a car or pickup truck to rush into the neighborhood and retrieve civilians. For a few hours, civilians streamed out of the area, which by evening became a ghost town.
But residents interviewed in New Brega said that the Gadhafi forces had never viewed New Brega as a priority. They had swept it house to house, looking for weapons and rebel fighters, but had not dug in and occupied the area. The main body of the Gadhafi forces, they said, were in defensive positions at the university and near the oil infrastructure.
Rebels fired ground-to-ground rockets at the suspected loyalist positions for hours. Smoke rose from the city, and at one point a rocket seemed to ignite a much larger explosion, sending a mushroom cloud billowing over the desert.
Late in the afternoon the rebels tried to advance down the road to the university, but were met by withering machine gun fire. And when many of the rebels began to pull back with their wounded and their dead, the loyalists shelled the nearest rebel checkpoint with an artillery or heavy mortar barrage, wounding at least six rebel fighters and triggering a panicked withdrawal that did not stop for several miles.
The fighting fit into a recent pattern of inconclusive skirmishes, as the seesaw battle up and down the Mediterranean coast has seemed to settle into a stalemate.
In another development Monday, Italy and Kuwait joined France and Qatar in recognizing the rebels' coordinating group, the Transitional National Council, as the legitimate government of Libya. "We have decided to recognize the council as the only political, legitimate interlocutor to represent Libya," said Foreign Minister Franco Frattini of Italy, which plans to send an envoy to Benghazi within days.
That followed a proposed resolution to the Libyan conflict from at least two of Gadhafi's sons. Under their plan, Gadhafi would step aside to make way for a transition to a constitutional democracy under the direction of his son Seif al-Islam, according to a diplomat and a Libyan official briefed on the plan.
The rebels, as well as the American and European nations supporting them, have so far insisted on a more radical break with Gadhafi's 40 years of rule. Essawi said the proposal was unacceptable. "There's no way to replace Gadhafi with a small Gadhafi," he said in an interview.
But a diplomat familiar with the proposal said discussions were still in the initial stages, and that "the bargaining has yet to commence."1 comment on this story
Noting that the United Nations resolution authorizing the airstrikes also precludes "a foreign occupation force of any form" in Libya, the diplomat said he wondered how the fighting could end without a negotiated solution.
Proposals and counterproposals even for a cease-fire appeared deadlocked thus far. "For Gadhafi a cease-fire means everyone should cease firing, but the Gadhafi forces should stay where they are," the diplomat said. "But for the rebels it means that the Gadhafi forces should withdraw."
"They will continue until the ammunition is finished, this stupid fighting along the highway," the diplomat said.
Rachel Donadio contributed reporting from Rome, and Thom Shanker from Washington.